An Interview with Alex Honnold, Star of “Free Solo”

Prepare to be blown away by the greatest climbing film ever made

By Chris Van Leuven

Free Solo

Honnold training in Yosemite with Yosemite Falls in the background (National Geographic/Jimmy Chin).

ASJ CAUGHT UP WITH THE WORLD’S GREATEST FREE SOLOIST Alex Honnold, 33, while he was visiting with his girlfriend’s family in Seattle to talk about the upcoming film he stars in called Free Solo. The movie shows him preparing for and ultimately executing a ropeless ascent of El Capitan—the greatest achievement ever accomplished on rock.

For 30 minutes we chatted about the upcoming film that will be released nationwide on September 28, but because he was so low-key it was easy to forget whom I was talking to. He’s the most celebrated climber of all time—and for good reason—but he’s so easy going it sounded like it could be anyone on the other end of the line.

On June 2017 and after years of ticking off long, hard free solo climbs from Zion (Moonlight Buttress; 2008), to Yosemite (Half Dome’s NW Face; 2012), to El Portreo Chico, Mexico, (El Sendero Luminoso; 2014), Honnold ticked his magnum opus: Freerider on El Capitan, a 5.13a up a 3,000-foot wall, a height of two and a half Empire State Buildings stacked one on top of the other. After years of preparation, the successful ascent took him fewer than four hours.

“Alex Honnold’s free solo climb of El Capitan should be celebrated as one of the greatest athletic feats of any kind ever,” says The New York Times.

Free Solo

Portrait of Honnold (The North Face).

As we talked, Honnold picked blackberries off the vine while he was on his bicycle, commenting how good it was to be in the cool Pacific Northwest. He said he’d been spending his time promoting the upcoming release of Free Solo made by award-winning directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, and “consciously avoiding climbing goals by cragging and hitting the gym.”

Before Free Solo, Vasarhelyi and Chin made the film Meru (available on Netflix) about former North Face Team captain Conrad Anker’s quest to complete the often-tried Shark’s Fin—one of climbing’s most coveted lines—on the 21,850-foot peak in the Garhwal Himalaya.

While promoting Free Solo, Honnold has also been focusing on growing his solar energy non-profit the Honnold Foundation. A few days after our call he used his birthday on August 17 to encourage his 800,000 Instagram followers to support clean, renewable energy sources throughout the world.

To put his climbing achievements in context, earlier this year he and Tommy Caldwell set the Nose record on El Capitan, reaching the top in less than two hours, halving the once long-standing record; it was an ascent that made headlines worldwide.  Also this year he climbed first ascents in Antarctica with his partner on The North Face Climbing Team Cedar Wright. Both climbs were captured in film.

“They’re making a Reel Rock film on the Antarctica climb and I have the Nose speed film coming out a year later. Three films,” Honnold says. Then came his classic downplaying: “I remember when doing [one] was a big deal.”

He says that Free Solo came to fruition because Vasarhelyi and Chin were looking for a follow-up to the highly successful Meru. “I wanted to climb El Cap and we made a movie,” Honnold says, again underplaying the whole thing. “The whole process to doing it was two and a half years.” On a personal level, he says, “the more concrete process of training and preparing [for the climb] was one and a half.”

As a climber of 25 years and former Yosemite resident, I’m familiar with the route Honnold climbed up El Capitan, having done it myself six times. I know that the lower third of the wall, Freeblast, is comprised of near-featureless slab climbing over terrain so slick that sticky shoes squeak down the glacier-polished rock. No one has ever dared climb this section of El Cap ropeless before Honnold did, and after Freeblast he still had 2,000 feet of terrain to go to finish the route.

“The real challenge with Freeblast is no matter how hard you train, no amount of strength will make it feel better,” he says between blackberries. “I did work on it a lot. One day I did it on a Mini Traxion [a self belay on a fixed line] in my approach shoes [without falling]. That was pretty encouraging.”

I also wanted to know how he did the hardest part, the 5.13a section, on pitch 28. “When I actually did it [solo] I felt great. [On a rope] I did it eight times in a row without falling. But psychologically I still had to do it [without a rope]. Overall [that section was] the best experience of soloing El Cap—it felt great.”

One thing Honnold stressed about the making of the film was how much he was shielded from getting too involved in the day to day.

“They did a good job insulating me from nuts and bolts,” he says, “that was done by design.” The crew kept him from knowing anything that could add pressure such as the day rate for the crew who had to get in place whether or not he was ready to climb. “It was a real consideration and they kept me out of everything so that I could go through my normal process and it would work out.”

To find a theater showing Free Solo near you, visit nationalgeographic.com/films/free-solo.

Free Solo

Honnold over 1,000 feet off the ground while climbing El Capitan with no ropes (National Geographic/Jimmy Chin).

Free Solo

Honnold nearing the top of El Cap (National Geographic/Jimmy Chin).

 

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